Opinion: Note to Democrats: Don’t make too much of the latest Trump-Russia news

Mark Warner and Richard Burr
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, left, and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the committee, joined in affirming the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

The Senate Intelligence Committee did a public service this week by issuing a report reaffirming that Russia interfered in the 2016 election campaign, not only to sow generic discord, but to help Donald Trump and harm Hillary Clinton. The committee found in its heavily redacted report that the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian involvement, which included the conclusion that Russia favored Trump, was a “sound intelligence product.”

It matters that the report is bipartisan, although it was spun somewhat differently by the panel’s senior Republican and senior Democrat.

The Republican chairman of the committee, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), issued a statement saying: “In reviewing the ICA, the Senate Intelligence Committee looked at two key questions: First, did the final product meet the initial task given by the president, and second, was the analysis supported by the intelligence presented? We found the ICA met both criteria.”


It was left to the panel’s Democratic vice chairman, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), to point out that among the conclusions the panel was praising included the finding that “the Russians interfered in our 2016 election to hurt Secretary Clinton and help the candidacy of Donald Trump.”

Still, it’s an important reproach to the idea that the intelligence community was unfair to Trump in its assessment.

Yet it would be a mistake for Democrats to gloat about this confirmation of findings originally reached during the waning days of the Obama administration. It’s too easy to slip from the observation that Russia favored Trump to the assumption that the Trump campaign reciprocated.

Yes, Trump and his campaign gave reason to believe that they would welcome Russia’s assistance. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III even concluded in his report that there were multiple links between the 2016 Trump campaign and individuals tied to the Russian government. But Mueller also said that his investigation didn’t establish that the campaign “conspired or coordinated with representatives of the Russian government.”

Trump characteristically distorted Mueller’s findings by describing them as a “complete and total exoneration.” But there was enough exculpation in Mueller’s report on Russia meddling — as opposed to his statements about possible obstruction of justice — for a serial fabricator such as Trump to be able to talk about the “Russian hoax.” Throw in the Steele dossier, disparaging comments about Trump by two FBI employees (the “lovers” Trump likes to mock) and there’s enough for Trump and his apologists to hang a witch hunt on.

Democrats will enable that counter-narrative if they equate the finding that Russia supported Trump with the idea that Trump and his campaign colluded with Russia. And, as I have argued before, alleged collusion in 2016 pales in comparison with Trump’s outrageous attempt as president to get Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. That misconduct got Trump impeached (though not convicted by the Senate). Democrats should drive home the point that it also justifies his removal from the White House in the November election.